As remembered by Jan Hillegas
Mother of Benjamin Brown Passes
by Jan Hillegas
Special to the Jackson Advocate
(Issue of February 9-15, 2006)
The church was full of family and friends for the Saturday funeral of Mrs. Ollie Mae Brown, 93, at Greater Blair Street A.M.E. Zion Church.
Mrs. Brown is most familiar to Jackson Advocate readers as the mother of Benjamin Brown, who was shot on Lynch Street in Jackson in May 1967 by Jackson police.
She persisted for over 35 years in seeking justice in his killing, until her health failed.
Born in Rankin County August 26, 1912, to Berry Kendrick and Bertha Given Kendrick, she died at MS Baptist Medical Center on January 30, 2006. She and her late husband Amhurst Brown, Sr., were also the parents of Amhurst (Rose) Brown, Jr., of Clinton, coach Arthur (Christine) Brown, and Billy James Brown of Jackson, who survive her. She is also survived by adopted daughter Doris Olivia Brown (Anthony) Jones of Mechanicsville, VA, stepdaughter Anna Butler, 17 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and many nieces, nephews and other relatives.
Tributes were spoken by fellow church member Eugene Ruffin, long-time neighbor Lillian Baldwin, Jan Hillegas, former City Councilman Robert Williams, and Amhurst Brown, Jr., and the eulogy was given by Rev. Arthur Davis. Beautiful solos were offered by relatives Linda Holden and Tamari Kulemeka in addition to songs by the Greater Blair Street Choir. Written tributes and acknowledgements were read by Connie Davis.
Mrs. Ollie Mae Brown was buried in Sweet Rest Cemetery, Pearl, MS, near her first church and school, and adjacent to the resting place of Ben Brown (1945-1967).
Tribute by Jan Hillegas - February 4, 2006
at funeral of Ollie Mae Brown
This has been a hard few months for civil rights activists in Jackson. For me, the three people who've passed recently have all been closely associated with a building I've been working for years to have renovated into an educational center.
What's now usually known as the COFO building on Lynch Street was the home of WOKJ radio station before it moved farther west, and Bruce Payne told us about its early history and how he took news bulletins up the street to Medgar Evers' office. Then Henry Kirksey had his print shop in the same building until he invited Bob Moses and the Council of Federated Organizations "COFO"to use it for a statewide office that was headquarters for the 1964 Freedom Summer. After the COFO office closed in 1965, the building had other uses. In May 1967, when police lined up on Lynch Street and shot west, mostly over the heads of a few dozen young men, Benjamin Brown fell, fatally wounded in the back, near the corner of the cemetery and the Kon-Tiki cafe in the former COFO building. Mrs. Brown later told me how at the hospital, they locked her in a room by herself, so great was her outcry at Ben's death.
Ben Brown and I had been acquainted in the civil rights movement, and I met his mother, Ollie Mae Brown, sometime after his death. He was our main connection to each other because after Roger Smith of Delta Ministry moved away from Mississippi, I helped put together news releases that Bruce Payne and others would put on radio and the Jackson Advocate would print in the paper. Mrs. Brown and I requested and received the FBI files and the Jackson Police files about Ben's killing and did what we could to denounce the lack of prosecution and ask for justice from those who could make it happen or prevent it.
In 1997, we worked on a video called "30 Years More Without Justice," which was shown on Public Access and on Jackson State University's TV 23. When I taped an interview with Mrs. Brown, she talked about Ben's activities and the police harassment of him, and that she didn't let him know she was scared for him. She also talked about when she was young, black children "couldn't do the things they do now." They didn't have cafeterias and school buses and had to walk five miles or more to school, so their hands would be freezing when they got there. She told how the white children and bus drivers would sometimes try to run the black children, who were walking, off into ditches alongside the road, into the muddy water, "and they'd be laughing," she said.
And she said she'd always wanted to vote. She and her husband would go down and pay the two dollars poll tax but when they took the test, they were told, "you don't qualify.' But they didn't give you the two dollars back," she told me. "I went to register 10 or 12 times, but they said I didn't make it." She didn't get registered until 1965, when the federal registrars came here, but by the 1970s, she had become a manager of a polling place.
She told me how she taught all her four boys "to work, taught them not to steal, and if they wanted anything from anybody, they asked them for it." And she never had trouble with any of them, she said, until Ben got in the Movement. She also said her sons "could wash and iron as good as a girl, cause I didn't have any girls and I taught them just what girls could do." Except she said Ben could do most anything but he couldn't cook.
And I especially liked the story about in 1963 or 1964, Ben and his brother "were walking some girls from the movies." The police shook them down and didn't find any weapons but told them, "You got that hair growing out from under your chin. Next time you come out on the street, I want it cut off or we're going to take our cigarettes and burn it off." Well, that upsetted me," she said, "and I couldn't sleep from then on. The next morning I got up early and went down and consulted with Chief Pierce. And I asked him when they passed a law for people to swing folks' hair from under their chin. And he said wasn't no law for it. And I said, "Well, two of your polices on beat on Lamar Street told my son Benjamin that they were going to swing the hair from under his chin."And I said, "I come to consult with you to tell them not to do it, cause he didn't have no white daddy." I said, "There's his daddy sitting over there. And if I don't make him cut 'em off and he don't make him cut it off, and I hope they won't try to swing 'em off cause I know he ain't going to let 'em," and I say, "If I be there, I ain't going to let 'em and we'll all just go to hell together.'
"And from them on, [Ben] was harassed. And he told me, say they could kill me. He didn't say what police, but he told me they said if they ever got a chance, say "we're going to kill you" so-and-so. And, as she put it, "after everything was over, that's when he got killed.... I guess that's the night they got a chance."
And so it was because of Ben that I knew Mrs. Ollie Mae Brown and met her fine family and some of her friends. Because of her persistence there's a Benjamin Brown Park today. And it's because of people like her that young people especially of the 1960s were brought up well and supported so that they would be strong enough to make a difference here and across the country.
In her last years, bedridden from a stroke, she would ask about my family and about local people we both knew, and she'd say she wished she could help with this or that. But she had already helped as much as she could, and we can all be glad to have known such a person who lived her life well, working for justice in the midst of her own anguish, with love for the good and the right.